Buffalo's Nate Persson (left) loses his stick, while STMA's Jordan Drobinski (right) closes in behind. Drobinski scored STMA's second goal in a 5-3 home win Tuesday night over the Bison in a Section 8AA quarterfinal matchup. (Photo by Rob LaPlante)
When the brackets for the Section 8AA boys' hockey tournament were released a week ago, the reigning Mississippi 8 champions were not exactly thrilled with their position.
Despite being the heavy favorite, No. 2 seed St. Michael-Albertville needed a goal in the final minute from Luc Laylin to push back a hard-charging Bison squad in a 5-3 home playoff win Tuesday night over No. 7 seed Buffalo.
Laylin's second goal of the game with 29 seconds left came just 12 seconds after Tyler Braccini scored his second of the game cutting STMA's one-time 4-0 lead to 4-3.
Despite sweeping their conference rivals in two regular season contests, STMA head coach Jerr Johnson felt a little uneasy coming into the game.
"We were happy with a two seed being at home, but when you look at a team that you played twice already in your conference, and being fortunate enough to win the conference title four years in a row, you feel like there's a bullseye on your back a bit," Johnson said. "When you play a team that many times and develop those rivalries, you know you're going to win some games and lose some. So yeah, we were a little nervous about the matchup a bit."
On the flip side, the underdog Bison were feeling good about Tuesday's matchup, despite losing 4-0 in the same arena just 10 days prior.
"We were really excited," said Tyler Braccini. "We knew the atmosphere was going to be huge and we didn't get stuck having to travel to Moorhead or Brainerd."
Much like the 4-0 defeat, Tuesday's playoff game followed a similar script. First-period goals by Caden Sigerud and Jordan Drobinski gave the Knights a 2-0 advantage. Sigerud's goal came 12:05 of period one and Drobinski followed just 19 seconds later.
With upset on their mind, Bison head coach Aaron Johnson knew a good start would be necessary.
In the 4-0 loss last Feb. 10, STMA scored twice in the game's opening 91 seconds.
"We had another slow start," Aaron Johnson said. "No, they didn't score early, but we weren't moving our feet. I don't know if it was the nerves, but it's something as a young group we haven't been able to overcome all year is our slow starts."
"We were hoping for a 0-0 game, or anything even after the first period," Braccini said. "The start this game was a lot better than the last game with them. We just didn't stick with it the whole first period, and that cost us the game – just like last time."
Buffalo was outshot in period one 14-2. STMA doubled its lead in the second period when Val Popowski and Adam Flammang gave the Knights a 4-0 advantage.
Unlike the Feb. 10 game, Buffalo shoved back, starting with a nice solo effort resulting in the Bison's first goal at 13:40 of period two by Jake Braccini, who made a move past a defender and picked a corner past STMA goalie Justin Damon.
Buffalo cut the lead in half when Tyler Braccini capitalized on a defensive miscue 3:20 into period three. The Braccini line kept buzzing and Jake hit the post two minutes later.
The response was something that Buffalo coaches to notice.
"We came out in the second and third and played extremely hard," Aaron Johnson said. "I'm super-proud of them for their effort and never giving up and making it a game. It was fun to watch those two periods of us playing."
The score remained 4-2 until Buffalo goalie Nathan Mueller was pulled for an extra attacker with nearly three minutes left in regulation. The Bison momentarily closed the gap to 4-3 on Tyler Braccini's second of the game with an assist to brother, Jake.
But any shot at a major comeback was spoiled when Laylin scored just 12 seconds after Braccini's tally.
Buffalo finished the season 13-13 overall. They return all but two graduating seniors, Ben Lindvall and Tyler Marr. With nearly a dozen first-year varsity hockey players, a .500 record is about where Buffalo coaches expected to be.
"You go into the season like this and want to win the games you should win and upset a couple teams and I thought we did that for the most part," Aaron Johnson said. "I've never had a team this young, so it was a learning experience for me, too. It's amazing from where we started to where we finished, especially in our practice habits."
Unlike an STMA squad with 12 seniors, Tyler Braccini knows their best years are still ahead of them.
"We'll be back next year, and they won't be – that's all there is too it," Tyler said.
As for this year, STMA likes its chances in the semifinals on Saturday when they host No. 3 seed Brainerd at 7 p.m. The winner of that game plays in the section title game next Wednesday against No. 1 Moorhead or No. 4 St. Cloud.
"We've been fortunate enough to have some really good players," Jerr Johnson said. "I've always been a huge proponent that if you have the right chemistry and the right leadership, that's ultimately what's really going to take you down to St. Paul."
Prior to Tuesday's playoff contest, the Bison lost a 4-2 road game last Thursday at St. Louis Park.
Luke Mobley's goal at 7:55 of period two proved to be the eventual game winner. St. Louis Park outshot the Bison 36-19. Goals by Jonathan Sorenson and Willy Basill gave the Orioles a 2-0 lead after one period. Squeezed around Mobley's second-period tally were a pair of shorthanded goals scored by Buffalo's Jake Braccini and Treyton Welch.
The Orioles got an insurance goal by Sam Baker at 14:37 of period three. Nathan Mueller made 32 saves in goal for the Bison.
Mobley also scored the game-winning goal in a 4-3 victory over Buffalo last Dec. 27 when the two teams met in the Schwan's Cup in Blaine.
St. Louis Park 4, Buffalo 2
(Thursday, Feb. 15 at St. Louis Park)
Bison0 2 0 - 2
Orioles2 1 1 - 4
First period: SLP -- Jonathan Sorenson (Shea Pekarek) 10:33; SLP -- Willy Basill (Connor Johnson) 12:33.
Second period: B -- Jake Braccini (Tyler Braccini) 4:39, SH; SLP -- Luke Mobley (Sorenson) 7:55; Treyton Welch (unassisted) 12:56.
Third period: SLP -- Sam Baker (unassisted) 14:37.
Goalies: B – Nathan Mueller (win) 14 shots, 12 saves; SLP – Bobby Wilson (loss) 29 shots, 26 saves. Shots: B – 6-5-8 – 19; SLP – 2-11-23 – 36. Power Plays: B – 0-5; SLP – 0-4.
Section 8AA Tournament
St. Michael-Albertville 5
(Tuesday, Feb. 20 at STMA)
Bison0 1 2 - 3
Knights2 2 1 - 5
First period: STMA -- Caden Sigerud (Zach Sjelin) 12:05; STMA -- Jordan Drobinski (Beau Reckard, Val Popowski) 12:24.
Second period: STMA -- Popowski (Luc Laylin, Cole Lehmann) 4:31, PP; STMA -- Adam Flammang (Nate Swenson, Justin Damon) 11:30; B -- Jake Braccini (unassisted) 13:40.
Third period: B -- Tyler Braccini (unassisted) 3:20, PP; B -- T. Braccini (J. Braccini) 16:19; STMA -- Laylin 2 (unassisted) 16:31.
Goalies: B – Nathan Mueller (loss) 41 shots, 36 saves; STMA – Justin Damon (win) 23 shots, 20 saves. Shots: B – 2-11-10 – 23; STMA – 14-13-14 – 41. Power Plays: B – 1-4; STMA – 1-1.